I’m starting this post out by confessing to an unfortunate personal blindness: when I think of formative American crime books, I mostly think of male authors, like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain. The characters they invented are part of the cultural consciousness, thanks in large part to the wave of films they inspired, films made by men, presented from a male’s perspective — films that often show a woman’s intelligence, if shown at all, by showing duplicity. I love these works as well, for a variety of reasons, and I’m not even close to an expert in this area; this self-observation is limited to a general reader, though I believe my myopic perspective is probably shared by many in the general reading population. And while I have read seminal crime novels by American women authors — such as Patricia Highsmith and Dorothy B. Hughes, whose novels are at least as (though I’d argue more) captivating and ground-breaking as those by the men I listed above — for some reason I subconsciously passed their work off as exceptions, perhaps even as offshoots from the great work done by British women, such as Agatha Christie and Daphne du Maurier.
It’s uncomfortable to think of how many blind spots and cultural biases I harbor, but I’m thrilled to have my eyes opened in this particular matter thanks to the solid case presented by The Library of America that not only were women authors writing phenomenal, essential books in the formative years of American crime fiction but they were also excelling and breaking ground. Today, The Library of America is publishing a special box set, Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s and 50s, an invaluable (and delightful) reminder of the work women authors were doing that has, sadly, been largely overshadowed for decades.
The set is divided into two volumes, one presenting four books from the 1940s and one four from the 1950s. Here are the books included:
- Laura, by Vera Caspary (1943)
- The Horizontal Man, by Helen Eustis (1946)
- In a Lonely Place, by Dorothy Hughes (1947)
- The Blank Wall, by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding (1947)
- Mischief, by Charlotte Armstrong (1950)
- The Blunderer, by Patricia Highsmith (1954)
- Beast in View, by Margaret Millar (1955)
- Fools’ Gold, by Dolores Hitchens (1958)
Many of these are quite famous in their own right and probably don’t count as hidden gems, but I still believe they are over-shadowed and that their impact is minimized. Editor Sarah Weinman provides a great introduction to women crime writers that goes back even further to show that women were always part of the equation: Metta Fuller Victor’s The Dead Letter (1866) and Anna Katherine Green’s The Leavenworth Case (1878) are both detective works that predate Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes mystery, A Study in Scarlet (1886). This tradition continued through World War I and World War II, two events that had a deep influence on crime fiction, particularly as written by men who returned from those catastrophes.
We often discuss the great American crime books by men as a group, and we look at what they say about a time and place and psychology. Grouping these books by women together facilitates an effort to do the same thing when looking at what women were going through. In Laura (one that is quite famous but probably mostly because it was made into a seminal film noir in 1944 by Otto Preminger), Vera Caspary presents a female protagonist who fights to live her own life, even as the men’s voices attempt to shape her for their own desires. In The Horizontal Man, Helen Eustis takes us to the murder of Kevin Boyle, a professor who for years has taken advantage of his position in order to satiate his philandering. Dorothy B. Hughes plays with and subverts the concept of the femme fatale in In a Lonely Place.
Such examinations of what it is to be female in these varied times and places and circumstances continue throughout this eight-book series. While facilitating such an exploration may be one of the main reasons for putting these books together, it is far from the only thing these books offer. Each deals with a variety of human traits in a variety of captivating scenarios — they’re great reads! While this post is meant only to introduce people to the set as a hole, reviews of the individual books are forthcoming.
Beyond the physical books, The Library of America has also put together a fantastic website (see here) that offers a lot of context and “testifies to the central importance of women writers in the canon of American crime fiction” (they did something similar for their classic science fiction box set a few years ago). Here you can read Sarah Weinman’s the introductory essay that I referred to above, as well as a few additional essays on the publishing history of women crime writers, the reason for this box set, “appreciations” on each book by various contemporary authors, biographies and bibliographies of each of the authors featured in the set, and book covers from the past. Beyond the books found in this set, the website also features an extensive chronology of crime books published by women in the 1940s through 1975, and, excitingly, a chronology of film adaptations. I find the discussion of the film adaptations particularly interesting as some of these authors were enraged by the changes made to their creations, changes that were often centered on the portrayal of the woman. For those of you who are Criterion Collection lovers, the list includes Ride the Pink Horse, Purple Noon, and Band of Outsiders, as well as many other films made by directors in the Criterion Collection.
This is an exciting box set, and I consider its release to be a great literary event. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the set but also on the general concept of women crime writers, then and now.